Guardian analysis exposes millions of clients were asked to used testing technique condemned by the EPA which may flush out detectable leading content

Water utilities in some of the largest cities in the US that collectively serve some 12 million people haveusedtests that downplay the amount of lead contamination found in drinking water for more than a decade, a Guardian analysis of testing protocols reveals.

In the tests, utilities ask customers who sample their homes water for lead to remove the faucets aerator screen and to flush lines hours before exams, potentially flushing out detectable lead contamination. The distorted exams, condemned by the Environmental Protection Agency, have taken place in cities including Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. The improper screening could lessen the chance of seeing potentially hazardous levels of lead in water, the EPA has said.

The analysis comes on the heels of an EPA letter, which repeated earlier warns to utilities not to use such techniques, and Guardian reporting that disclosed water clients in every major US city east of the Mississippi could be drinking water tested using questionable methods.

Its a staggering number, and its alarming and upsetting to hear, said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech professor in the civil engineering department, about the number of Americans potentially affected by the tests. Lambrinidou is also an activist who has worked with the scientist Marc Edwards, who helped uncover Flint, Michigans lead-tainted water crisis.

At the same time, its why weve been working as long and as hard weve been working on this issue because we have suspected as much.

An estimated 96 million Americans live their lives result service lines pipes that carry water from mains to meters. Lead lines are one of the most serious risk factors affecting the amount of result in water that pours from the tap.

The requirement to test for lead in water dates to 1991, when the Safe Drinking Water Act issued a new mandate called the Lead and Copper Rule.

It was in 2006 that the EPA first issued guidance advising against test practices that scientists call deceptive, including removing aerators, pre-flushing lines and using small-necked bottles to collect samples. That year, the agency said removing aerators could result in improperly lowering leading in water samples.

Since then, warnings about removal of aerators and other dubious testing methods have come every couple of years.

Edwards wrote a paper in 2009 pointing out the gaming of compliance. Water systems which had documented lead problems, such the Washington DC water and sewer authority, tested water at specific times of the year, and in ways that demonstrably lowered leading levels.

Many of the same techniques continue to be used by public water utilities today. Pre-flushing, removal of aerators, utilizing small-necked bottles for samples and instructing samplers to fill them slowly, testing while the outside temperature is cold, and limiting the time water sits in tubes for samples all restriction the leading leaching into water.

In 2011, Edwards wrote to officers at the EPAs office of water, telling them in part that the so-called gaming of the rule was undermining its intent. It is undeniable that such practices will increase public exposure to lead in water, and therefore, pose a direct public health menace to children, Edwards wrote. In 2013, a white paper written for the EPA warned against aerator removal, pre-flushing and the use of small bottles.

Most recently, on 29 February, the EPAs head of drinking water, Dr Peter Grevatt, again told water utilities to stop in a public letter that was also sent to 49 governors( save Wyoming ). The procedures, he said, potentially led to the public water system not taking additional actions needed to reduce exposure to leading in drinking water.

But water utilities, from little town in Maine that serve around 50,000 people to major systems in the Boston metro area, again asked customers in their most recent round of testing to flush lines or remove aerators before a six-hour period when water must sit in lines.

If[ the EPA is] so clear, why is it still a recommendation? asked Kevin Gagne, the superintendent of public works in Lewiston, Maine, a city of approximately 36,000 served by his water district. Lewistons testing protocols ask customers to remove the aerator the night before testing, vigorously flush lines and leave the aerator off during testing. If its so definitive, why isnt it mandated?

Gagne said his department wasnt told to stop flushing or removing the aerator by the state of Maine, or by any EPA officials, and said he only found out about the recommendation a couple months ago.

Why are we just finding out about it now, after several months of debate in the media and all this information came to see you, why wasnt that mandated and brought down to our attention back in 2006?

Despite a decade of recommendations to the contrary, the testing techniques appear to be widespread, and ongoing. The Guardian has find continued utilize of these protocols in seven cities east of the Mississippi that have responded to freedom of information requests. Populations served were calculated using figures from the US census bureau and customer calculates from water authorities.

The Massachusetts water resources authority, which serves 2.5 million residents in the Boston metro area, asked residents who sample their water for lead to flush the faucet head with cold water for 30 to 60 seconds, and not to allow water to sit for more than 12 hours, an arbitrary number.

The Portland water district in Maine, which serves approximately 110,000 residents, advised testers to flush the system for 10 seconds, and not to let it sit in pipes for more than eight hours.

Philadelphia asked samplers to remove the aerator from the faucet and run only the cold water for two minutes before the test begins.

Columbus, Ohio, a midwest city of 835, 000, tells customers to SLOWLY fill their sample bottles, to flush cold water lines exhaustively( for a couple minutes) and to preferably use a sink with separate hot and cold taps. Scientists believe each of those protocols can lessen the amount of lead likely to leach into samples.

The Champlain water district, which serves South Burlington, Vermont, told samplers: The water faucet must be flushed for three to four minutes the night before sampling, and to slowly fill the bottle.

Rhode Islands state health department, which serves 1m people, advised testers to flush the tap before the six-hour period. And Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, the third largest city in the Palmetto state with 77,000 people, told samplers to operate the water in the tap before you go to sleep at night and not to wait more than 10 hours to test their water.

Until 2009, the Chicago department of water management told residents to remove the aerator, clean out any rubble, flush for 5 minutes with cold water and replace the aerator the evening prior to sampling. That practise only ended in 2012, as the EPA was in the midst of conducting a lead water contamination analyse in the city.

Edwards, who has spent much of his time lately in Flint, Michigan, where the national guard has been dedicating out filters and bottled water, criticized both utilities and the EPA. He called the EPAs failure to stop the practices a sick gag played on an unsuspecting public.

Frankly,[ water utilities] really like to report on the less of water-lead they find after such deception, even if the lead in water is dangerously higher when people are drinking the water, said Edwards. It is part of how they fool themselves, and others, that they are doing their chore.

In part defense of the utilities, EPA repeatedly refused to issue commonsense further clarification of the issue until after the Flint debacle and the sample games became an international embarrassment, he said. Even though we know elevated blood-lead in Flint neighborhoods skyrocketed … Flint has never officially failed the EPA Lead and Copper Rule, because of how homes there were tested.

As in Flint, some scientists suspect the reason behind use such protocols is to avoid procuring lead in the first place. Stakes are high once utility surpass the federal limit.

Theres absolutely no doubt about that, said Lambrinidou. Receiving lead in water, and potentially outstripping the[ EPAs] lead action level, involves numerous steps, numerous remedial actions that take resources and time and peoples attempt.

Among specific requirements: lead service line replacements, corrosion control studies and implementation. In Columbus alone, a chemical to control corrosion expenses $1,800 per day, plus another $20 m allotted for main infringes and lead service line replacings. The Massachusetts water resources board spends $3.6 m on corrosion control alone per year.

For small and medium-sized water systems, outstripping the lead limit would mean being required to install a new corrosion control system, if the system doesnt already have one. It was the failure to implement corrosion control that caused lead to leaching into the water in Flint.

Thus far, the EPAs decade of recommendations have failed to become law, though officials say the rules are in the process of being updated. There is no estimate of how many of the nations 155,000 water utilities flush lines before testing for leading.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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